If you ever wondered what will happen if there is a change in political power in Washington D.C., there was no better reason to fear the future after watching last night’s “debate” on Larry King Live between Lou Dobbs, former Republican-turned-crusader for the middle class, and Robert Reich, former Labor Secretary in the Clinton Administration. Dobbs was the populist rebelling against abusive corporate power and the off-shoring of jobs, while Reich was the elitist defending the ruling class’ so-called “free trade” ideas and minimizing outsourcing of jobs. I kid you not.
I had tuned in to hear a bit about Dobbs’ new jeremiad about the assault against the middle class, outlined in his new book, “War on the Middle Class, How the Government, Big Business and Special Interest Groups are Waging war on the American Dream and How to Fight Back.” I am uneasy about some of Dobbs’ views on immigration. But, his main thesis is that—duh—abusive corporate power is at the heart of the attack on the middle class. In particular, he rails against outsourcing, as he has for a long time on his daily program, arguing that corporations have no allegiance to its workers and are simply searching for the biggest profits. Duh.
Check this out: “Now, there are Democrats and Republicans out there saying, ‘What in the world are you talking about?’ The fact is that both parties are owned lock, stock, and barrel by corporate America and U.S. multinationals. And, if you examine their funding or where they stand with their platforms, where in the United States Congress do you find representation for the middle class today? There is $2.4 billion being spent by corporate America and special interests and social special interests in this country to persuade your lawmakers and mine to vote in whatever way is most amenable to them but not you and me.” And later: “Corporate America and special interests own, as I said, absolutely without equivocation the legislative process and the electoral process and we've got to come to terms with that reality.”
This is a pure and simple fact. Can you point to any Democrat who is speaking this truth in any political race, a truth that so many voters are articulating in their obvious disgust with a political system that is not coping with the grave diplomatic, economic and environmental crisis gripping our country?
But, the most interesting part of last night’s debate, I believe, is that the show’s producers dug up Reich to be the counterpoint to Dobbs. Since the economic facts are indisputable, Reich agreed with Dobbs that the middle class was being shafted and the rich are making out like bandits but he minimized the effect of outsourcing. Instead, Reich continued to promote his drivel that the solution to our problem is education. Reich’s mantra for many years effectively blames the victim (no wonder he served in the Clinton Administration): you’re too dumb to compete in today’s global economy.
The most revealing moment of the debate happened when Reich, a supporter of so-called “free trade” (let us not forget that he helped push NAFTA through) tried to pull a fast one: “We are losing manufacturing jobs, but it’s not just globalization that’s causing it. We’re losing them because of technology. Even, Lou, if we were so rash as to put a -- and we could put a big iron curtain around the United States and not trade with anybody, we would still be losing manufacturing jobs because of technology.”
To his credit, Dobbs would not let Reich use that sleazy smear. “Robert Reich, don’t you do one of those Bush administration things and set polar extremes in an argument, and suggest that those Hobson’s choices are our only policies.”
Actually, the point is that Republicans and Democrats alike have tried to tar opponents of so-called “free trade” as “protectionists” who simply don’t want to accept the “reality” of the global economy. The bi-partisan embrace of education or skills competition is simply a way of deflecting attention from the threat of corporate power. Dobbs has the guts to say so. Reich does not.
As I’ve written before, no one is saying that education is a bad thing in the abstract. And certainly it will help some workers get a better job. But a degree in software engineering is the wrong answer to the global economy because it addresses the wrong question—how do workers compete when skills are a sideshow to the relentless hammering down of wages? In the real world, the global economy is about one thing: labor costs. If a company can move to China to employ workers making 35 cents an hour—whoosh, they are gone from America. High-tech jobs have been moving offshore for years, first to places like Ireland, and now to India.
The world is awash in highly skilled, highly educated and cheap workers. The hard fact is that in virtually every industry, foreign workers across the globe are increasingly as skilled and productive as American workers. India, for example, has a highly trained, highly skilled workforce capable of pumping out new software, industrial design and other new technological innovations. In India, the starting salary of a software engineer is about $5,000, and senior engineers make $15,000; the country has at least half a million information technology professionals eager to work for wages that are a fraction of the going rate here.
I’ve always argued that education is a good thing and it may even help some workers get a better job. But a degree in software engineering is the wrong answer to the global economy because it addresses the wrong question—how do workers compete when skills are a sideshow to the relentless hammering down of wages? And neither Dobbs nor Reich ever uttered the word “unions” when it came to talking about the most obvious point: the labor movement built the middle class and the labor movement’s obliteration is the chief reason for the shredding of a decent standard of living.
If you asked me who I’d rather have figuring out the Democrats’ future policies, I’d choose Dobbs in a heartbeat. He has some big weaknesses—but he can be helped. Reich, though, is, and has always been, an elitist. And that should be worrisome to all average Americans who are searching for political leadership to lead us out of the economic morass we face.